Aculon Offers Cleantech Breakthrough as it Commercializes Nanocoating Technology

After getting a briefing last month from Aculon CEO Ed Hughes, I would not have thought of the five-year-old San Diego startup as a cleantech company. Nanotechnology? Yes. Materials Science? Absolutely. Cleantech? Nah, not really.

Yet Aculon is announcing today that it has developed a formulation of its proprietary nanocoating technology to replace certain applications of hexavalent chromium, a toxic, cancer-causing heavy metal used to make anti-corrosion coatings, as well as stainless steel, dyes, and wood preservatives, among other things. Hexavalent chromium was found in the drinking water of Hinkley, CA, a small desert town made infamous by Erin Brockovich, who was in turn made famous by the namesake film starring Julia Roberts. Suffice to say it is a nasty toxic substance, and a known human carcinogen via inhalation. It can cause kidney and liver damage, along with nasal, skin, and stomach irritations.

Edward Hughes

Edward Hughes

The Environmental Protection Agency and State of California have banned the use of hexavalent chromium compounds in many applications, although a loophole allows its continued use if there is “no feasible alternative.” So Aculon’s announcement today could be of widespread importance. The company says the use of its nanocoating technology provides that alternative.

It is a little-known fact that paint won’t stick to aluminum, titanium, or stainless steel. So under the “no feasible alternative” exemption, many manufacturers use a chromium-based primer—which is sprayed as an undercoat on baseball bats, beverage cans, bicycles, golf club heads, and electric circuit boards. Aculon says its proprietary SAMP technology, which stands for self-assembled monolayer of phosphonates, can be used instead of hexavalent chromium in paint primers sprayed on metal products.

Aculon was founded in 2004 by Eric Bruner, who obtained his doctorate in chemistry from Princeton University in 2002. The company licensed rights to pioneering work in surface chemistry and related innovations by Jeffrey Schwartz, a Princeton professor of chemistry. Schwartz’s team found ways to use phosphorous acids to create an unusually strong (covalent) bonding effect with oxides on the surface of metals that are traditionally non-reactive.

Acculon, which has about 12 employees, says it has strengthened its initial IP position with 15 additional inventions.

Aculon’s Hughes told me this phosphonate layer is just one molecule thick, or 2 to 4 nanometers, and can be applied in a way that makes the nanocoating “sticky” like Velcro, or “slippery” like Teflon. “What Aculon has done is take this nanotechnology out of the laboratory and put it into commercial-scale applications,” Hughes told me. “We basically provide the coating and the treatment material. We work with customers to supply them with the treatment.”

For example, Hughes said Acculon’s adhesive nanocoating has proved useful in the semiconductor and electronics industries by getting nonconducting (dialectric) resins to adhere to the copper foil used in printed circuit boards. The company’s proprietary slippery nanocoating is both water-repellant and oil-repellant, and has been commercialized for prescription eyeglasses made by Hilco of Plainville, MA, and sunglasses made by Oakley of Foothill Ranch, CA. Aculon says its slippery nanocoating also can be used to coat touch screens such as those used in iPhones, iPods and other mobile electronic devices, as well as displays in cell phones, laptop computers, and other electronics.

Hughes sees an array of unorthodox markets for Aculon’s coatings in industrial and consumer markets, including the automotive aftermarket for custom wheels. Cleaning brake dust from such wheels can be a challenge, Hughes said. But with Aculon’s slippery nanocoating, “We can treat a chrome wheel so you can literally hose the brake dust off.”

“The beauty about nanotechnology,” Hughes later said, “is what you’re doing is taking existing materials and adding value with these super-thin films.”

Aculon has been largely self-funded, with substantial help from a handful of “high net-worth” investors, Hughes said. Asked if he planned to raise venture capital, Hughes said, “We’re not sure we’re going to go that route. The best money is customer money.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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